Empathic leadership (part 1)

What are your leadership goals? Maybe you want to empower teams of people who can change the world. That sounds like a worthy goal for a leader. It turns out that mine are overcoming anxiety and building self-esteem. This was the unexpected outcome of my first session with a coach yesterday, before starting a new leadership role today. Maybe one day I’ll get to the bit about empowering my colleagues and changing the world.




I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’ve been journeying deep into leadership in preparation for this role, having written a chapter on “empathic leadership” in my forthcoming book, Impact Culture. I concluded my chapter by writing that:



“Impact needs empathic leaders who lead “from behind” by empowering those around them. They are often not recognised and are rarely thanked for what they do. The satisfaction that arises from this approach lies primarily in what they see others being enabled to do as a result of their actions, what I have heard some people refer to as “second-hand glory”. The power in this type of leadership comes from the deep places rather than the high places in this world.”


My first leadership role was a disaster. As an early career researcher, I was a deputy director of a research centre, and when the director took long-term sick leave, I was made director. I was unprepared for the psychological baggage of people I had previously considered friends, who suddenly felt compelled to fight me, alongside every other authority figure they had been fighting all their lives, which they now projected onto me. Nobody paid any attention to anything I ever suggested. In fact, I had the distinct impression that colleagues opposed my ideas out of principle, because I had been given a leadership position they felt I didn’t deserve. I discovered much later, that many of them resented the additional pay and teaching relief that they thought came with the role (neither of which I actually got). People stopped turning up to meetings and events, and by the end, it was just me and my PA doing everything. Then I went to the printer one day and found an advert for a PA position in the local council. Even my PA could see the writing on the wall, and without her, my team of two would be one. I closed the Centre.


I had assumed that with the title of Director, people would naturally respect me and follow my lead, as they had done for the previous Director. I learned that you have to earn respect. People might fear authority but they rarely respect it. They are more likely to respect leaders who are quietly comfortable in their own skin, who are vulnerable enough to lead with true authenticity and conviction.


It is this journey into authenticity that has forced me to face the uncomfortable reality that behind the confident exterior I present to the world, there is a frightened little boy who can be panicked without warning, leaving me blank mid-speech in front of an audience, or making decisions out of fear, that I later regret. If I want to be a truly authentic leader, I can’t hide that boy any more. I have to make friends with him. I have to bring him on stage with me, and help him realise that he has the courage to face his fears.


I have talked openly about my battle with depression after that first leadership role, but I have never had the courage to speak about the anxiety still grips me to this day. I’ve often joked about car-crash speaking engagements where I was ambushed by panic attacks, but I’ve never actually admitted that I suffer from an ongoing issue with anxiety. I have learned coping strategies: always write speeches out word for word, in case panic takes hold and I go blank, but always make sure there’s a lectern so I don’t have to hold the paper and let people see my hands shaking. After being a Professor for over 7 years, the terror of public speaking is only slightly less powerful than it was as a PhD student. I’m just much better at hiding it.


And therein lies my challenge. A leader who hides their true self is not truly authentic. And while I don’t want to elicit pity or undermine people’s confidence in me, there is a deeper form of confidence that comes from actually being yourself. You can think more clearly when you’re not trying to keep your hand over the mouth of a boy who is trying to scream the whole way through your presentation. Standing there on stage with the boy next to me, looking out anxiously over the audience, it is possible to speak words of comfort, both to the worried little boy and the audience.


We all have fears because we are all frail and fallible humans. I’m just like you, and you’re just like me. If you still find yourself terrified by some of the things you have to do as part of your job, you are not alone. It is still possible to lead. And it is possible to lead as you, with the nervous boy standing right next to you, giving him reassuring nods and smiles as you go.



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